With the summer holidays in full swing we're all looking for the opportunity to set aside work and relax, whether it's spending time with friends, visiting new places or simply stepping out into the great outdoors. It's a well known fact that going outside, being surrounded by the natural word, is sure to help bring down those stress levels. But what is it exactly that helps us to relax? A refreshing breeze? Listening to the birds singing? The simplistic beauty of a green space?

In this blog our volunteer Roy Williams explores a philosophical and intellectual idea of what it means to be surrounded by a place of beauty...

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In 1911 the Welsh Poet W.H.Davies wrote in his poem “Leisure” the following often quoted lines:

“What is this life, if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare”

When I walk into the Visitor Centre at RSPB Sandwell Valley and look out of our windows, these words come to mind. My eyes scan the sloping foreground meadow down to the marsh, then over the lake and up the hill to the golf course. To the left and right the line of trees are like arms, wrapping itself around the view.

Visitors to the Nature’s Reach Centre also stare at this view. So what are they seeing that is so absorbing? I think it is the absence of everything which defines our urban life – homes, businesses, vehicles and noise.

In modern times we describe the view as ‘picturesque’, but before 1782 this description would not have been understood by the average man or woman. It was introduced into the cultural debate by William Gilpin in his book “Observations on the River Wye and Several Parts of South Wales, etc”

The term ‘picturesque’ needs to be understood in relationship to two other aesthetic ideals: the beautiful and the sublime. Beauty is a characteristic of an animal, idea, object, person or place that provides a perceptual experience or pleasure or satisfaction. In aesthetics, the Sublime (from the Latin sublimis) is the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical aesthetic, spiritual or artistic.

I think our view at RSPB Sandwell Valley is one of Beauty – A place that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure and satisfaction.

For most of us, living in the Birmingham or Black Country conurbation a picturesque view from a window of our home is almost impossible; unless you are rich. The normal view is of other houses, walled and fenced in with a tree and a garden. If you live on a higher floor, your view is often of the roofs of other buildings torn through with roads and traffic.

I think that staring down to the lake relieves the day to day stresses and imprints a memory in the brain that can be recalled when we want to relax. The birds on the feeders, the plants in the meadow, the reflection on the water and the occasional fox are all a bonus In 1916, in the middle of a devastating war, W.H.Davies wrote the following lines in his poem “April Charms”:

“And hear the pleasant cuckoo loud and long,

The simple bird that thinks two notes a song.”

I haven’t seen or heard a cuckoo at Sandwell Valley, but when I do I shall stop and stare and listen to its song.

- Roy Williams, RSPB Sandwell Valley Volunteer

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